This year’s March Madness yielded an unusual number of losers. There were the 67 teams that didn’t win the tournament. There was the hapless gang who set up a bracket so inept that the final game was a contest between 7th seed UConn and 8th seed Kentucky. There was NCAA brass, enduring weeks of terrible headlines after a National Labor Relations Board ruling opened up the prospect of student-athletes unionizing. And, finally, there were the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, who after being knocked out in the first round for four straight years, didn’t even make it that far this season.
Happily, then, there was one Vegas name who had an excellent March: former Runnin’ Rebels champ and Knicks star Greg Anthony. For the first time in his impressive broadcasting career, the 46-year-old Rancho High alum, whose No. 50 hangs from the rafters at the Thomas & Mack, was the go-to TV color commentator from the early rounds through to UConn’s championship celebration.
“You kind of come full circle,” he said of sitting behind the mic to call a tournament he and his Jerry Tarkanian-led team won half a lifetime ago in 1990. “It’s been a blast, and I could not be happier.”
The Rebels of Anthony’s era were the closest thing Vegas has ever had to a professional team, a national phenomenon whose starters all went pro and were autograph-magnets even as they stalked the classrooms between Swenson and Maryland.
The likes of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Bill Cosby and Redd Foxx sat courtside for games and stopped by the locker room afterwards, Anthony recalled, the way A-listers nowadays mug for photos with the casts of Cirque shows backstage. “We had a semblance of celebrity, but I was still a student, I still had to go to class and practice,” he said.
It was that experience that drew me to Anthony. The hottest topic of this year’s tournament was whether the current crop of student-athletes, who have far more fame than even Anthony knew back then, should unionize or enjoy some additional benefits from the billion-dollar juggernaut in which they star.
Anthony is a political conservative who was a prominent college Republican at UNLV. He once fantasized about becoming Nevada’s first black senator and even appeared in a Mitt Romney ad that ran in the state. For those reasons, I expected him to be critical of last month’s ruling, now under vigorous appeal, that Northwestern University student-athletes can unionize. Conservatives usually aren’t fond of unions, but Anthony knows something about being a student-athlete—back then and now. Had the NCAA not acted so haughty and immovable in figuring out a better deal for these kids, he said, maybe the prospect of a union wouldn’t be necessary.
And Anthony isn’t entirely against it. He said a lot of people are opposed to student-athletes unionizing because they see full-ride scholarships as a form of payment. But, Anthony added, “your scholarship is an annual package. It can be revoked without cause, and it can be revoked at any moment by the president, by the [athletic director], by the coach. The student-athlete doesn’t have any say.”
Student-athletes aren’t permitted to get jobs—as if they’d have the time—and Anthony recalled poor kids without enough money to go on dates or buy a burger. “There’s got to be some kind of balance,” he said.
Why is this issue just arising now? To hear Anthony tell it, his day was a much more innocent time for college sports. Back then, having your games televised was a big deal; now it’s standard. Heck, Anthony says, many high school games are televised these days.
“Kids today are a lot more aware and a lot smarter,” he said. “We weren’t as worldly. We thought we were, but we just were not.”
Perhaps Anthony is thinking of his own son, a promising seventh-grade player who—and this may kill serious Rebels fans—wants to play at Duke. Yes, Duke. The biggest bogeyman of Anthony’s college career, the hated rivals they beat to win the 1990 championship and lost to in the Final Four the next year. Time—and marrying a woman with a medical degree from Duke—evidently heals.
But Anthony hasn’t forgotten his UNLV roots. He pops into town a few times a year, and he keeps rooting for a Rebels resurgence. That they were nowhere to be found while he was calling the tournament cost him some grief in the booth.
“All of us on the talent side, we all rib each other, we all take pride in our schools,” he said. “We’ve been in the tournament the last few years, and we had great expectations this year. Hopes are, they’ll be back next year stronger than ever.”